Let's not bury the lead: Boston Celtics big man Al Horford, playing his first game Saturday since suffering a concussion in practice on Halloween, was simply spectacular against the Detroit Pistons.
Horford scored 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting with 11 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals. In a two-point game, he was an impossible plus-17 in plus/minus over 33 minutes, 45 seconds of floor time. Not only did Horford produce the game-winning putback with 1.3 seconds remaining, but he also blocked Aron Baynes' shot at the buzzer to seal a 94-92 triumph over the Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
But none of Horford's heroics would have been possible without Marcus Smart risking life and limb to simply keep the ball alive on Boston's final possession. It was Smart who charged full throttle from the 3-point line and leaped into a wall of four white jerseys, tipping the ball just enough to allow Horford to quickly flick it back up and break the game's final tie.
On his fearless charge, Smart leaped between Ish Smith and Tobias Harris. Caught beneath the rim, Smart tried his best to force up his own putback but didn't have a good angle. He went crashing to the floor as Smith leaned forward from Smart's impact. Smart was able to brace his fall slightly with his arms, but the side of his head appeared to hit the floor. Smart needed a moment to collect himself after the play (and Smith immediately checked on him after seeing the hard crash).
After a timeout, Smart stayed on the floor for Detroit's final possession and chased Pistons leading scorer Marcus Morris before the last shot went to Baynes.
"The credit is to Marcus. I mean, that's championship plays that he made, winning plays that he made right there," Horford told reporters in Detroit. "So he just literally crashed the glass hard -- the ball just fell, and I just put it back in."
This was the quintessential Marcus Smart play on the quintessential Marcus Smart night. Smart put up only two points on 1-of-9 shooting and missed all five 3-pointers that he took. But in 31 minutes of floor time, he tallied seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks and no turnovers.
Without Smart's hustle, the Pistons likely corral Jae Crowder's missed 3-point attempt and call timeout with a few seconds to play in a tie game. Instead, Horford produced a bucket that not only capped a brilliant performance but gave Boston a much-needed jolt of positivity after Friday's loss to the Golden State Warriors.
"It was Marcus Smart's effort," Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters of the winning putback. "That was effort."
Smart, who missed the start of the season after spraining his left ankle in Boston's final preseason game, had tweaked that same injury in Friday's game. Smart bruised the ankle in the third quarter and was ruled out for the rest of the night. Stevens said the team would reevaluate Smart before Saturday's game, and Smart was able to shuffle to a reserve role, with Horford and Crowder back in the starting lineup.
Smart's impact is typically reflected in Boston's on/off-court splits, but through 10 appearances, Smart actually has been a net negative for the Celtics. Boston's net rating is minus-1.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, and it jumps to plus-3.1 when he's on the bench. On Saturday night, however, Smart's net rating was a plus-5.7.
For the season, Smart is averaging 10.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Some look at Smart and see a 2014 No. 6 pick who is an inconsistent offensive player in a reserve role. But Celtics fans know Smart's value can't fully be quantified by his basic stat line. Smart has embraced difficult defensive challenges lately, often giving up size to opposing small forwards while starting in Crowder's place.
It's the hustle plays that really tend to distinguish Smart, as he proved on Saturday.
But back to Horford, who hardly looked like a guy who had been sidelined for three weeks while navigating the league's return-to-activity and concussion protocols.
"I felt good. I felt really good," Horford told reporters. "Very frustrating these past few weeks, dealing with a lot of different things. Finally, I'm at the point that I felt good enough today that I was ready to play."
Horford credited strength coach Bryan Doo for keeping his wind up while the concussion kept him away from basketball activities. Horford admitted to being gassed after the first five minutes, but he hardly showed any other rust from the extended time off. Watching the Celtics struggle while posting a 4-5 record in the nine games he missed, Horford has a greater appreciation for being back on the floor.
"Being on the side like this, seeing the team have its ups and downs, it really just makes you lock in as a player," Horford told reporters. "It makes you appreciate, I guess, a lot more the process and playing and building something. Because we're building something here."